Experiments, Ramen, Recipes

Ramen Chashu: Phase 1

November 6, 2014

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Hi, guest contributor Hsien, here. Nate invited me to post about my first attempt at making ramen-style chashu (shoyu-braised pork belly). Nate doesn’t have ready access to pork belly, and I do, so I’m gonna be the guinea pig.

Nate and I had the privilege of traveling around Tokyo for a week and a half a few years ago. Our first night out, as we were ready to head out to explore Shinjuku, drink, and play pachinko, we came across a ramen stand right across from our hotel. We timidly approached the stand, where a young man behind the counter stared at us, bewildered at these two gaijin. We stared back, uncertain what to do. Eventually, I just held up two fingers and stammered, “…ramen?” He served us up two bowls of simple shoyu ramen, and our ramen journey began. Throughout the trip, we stopped at every ramen stand we came across, casually rubbing shoulders with Japanese salarymen and happily gobbling up marinated pork; thinking back, we didn’t know just how good we had it.

I’ve had a lot of ramen since coming back to the US. While a lot of the ramen I’ve had in the US has been delicious, including the vaunted (and yes, delicious) “best ramen in NYC”, Ippudo, there’s one thing that no ramen place in the US I’ve ever visited has gotten quite right. Something that even the most modest of Japanese street-side ramen stands nails effortlessly: the chashu. Part of it may be due to the fact that, other than a few isolated specialty farms, US pork is raised to be super lean (“the other white meat”), while Japan still revels in the best part about pork: the fat. Or maybe it’s just that nobody’s cooking it properly over here. Going from a recipe from The Food Lab, let’s put that to the test.

img_4304We start here with some “boness” pork belly purchased at a Korean market.
img_4305The recipe recommends rolling and tying the pork belly, which I was more than happy to do, as I so rarely get to bust out my butcher’s twine. I did my best, but I could have really used a second set of hands to get them really nice and tight. The Food Lab uses 3 strings per belly, but mine were only about 1.5 inches thick, so I could only get one string around each.

The Food Lab recommends cooking the bellies sous-vide, but since I don’t have the counter space or the disposable income for an immersion circulator, I went for the more traditional braise. The Food Lab lists their recommended braising ingredients, but they don’t specify any quantities, so I improvised, based on my prior experiences with braising pork (in addition to a healthy dose of good-old fashioned guesswork). Here’s my recipe:

2 cups water
2/3 cups soy sauce
1/4 cup aji-mirin
1/4 cup sake
1 tsp sugar
2 garlic cloves, crushed
2 shallots, peeled and halved
1 bunch scallions, trimmed
1 inch knob ginger, roughly chopped

img_4306Looking back, I think I could have used slightly less liquid. After all, this was a braise, not a boil. This was a first-run attempt, and I plan to refine the recipe in the future, so maybe I’ll post a recipe update later.

Set the oven to about 275-300 degrees, get the pork and braising ingredients simmering on the stovetop, then cover the pot loosely with foil and put it in the oven for 3.5 hours.

img_4314Beverage while I wait. A few things to note on the fridge in the background:

  • Pictures of 2 of my favorite babies in the world (though one of them is technically no longer a baby).
  • A magnet from Momofuku (restaurant empire by chef/owner David Chang, whom I’ll mention briefly again below).
  • And hell yes, that is a goddamned Walter White bottle opener on the fridge. I mean, we’re talking about cooking here, right?
img_4327Checking the braise about halfway through the cooking. Oh no, they’ve all come untied! Maybe I should try 3 strings after all, next time. I hope it’ll still be delicious.
img_4330So here’s what it looks like when it’s done. Not that super appetizing-looking, but the dark color tells me that the soy sauce has infused into the pork.
img_4332Stick a knife in the pork belly to check for done-ness.
Ohhh yes. No resistance whatsoever.

Cut off a piece to try it. And by “cut off a piece”, I mean “omg a chunk broke off when I poked it since it’s so tender and I just shoved it into my mouth oh can I have another piece ahhhhhhh”.

Pork-fatgasm.

Okay, let’s calm down.

One thing I’ve learned about braised pork belly is that you want to chill it before slicing it, otherwise it’ll just fall apart under even the sharpest of knives. “Pulled pork belly” may be fatty, melty and delicious, but that’s not what you want with ramen.

Also, with any braised meat, you want to keep it in the braising liquid until you’re ready to serve, otherwise the meat will completely dry out. So, since I wasn’t going to eat this until the next day, I let it cool on the stovetop before sticking it in the fridge. Also, on The Food Lab’s recommendation, I added some boiled eggs to the braising liquid to marinate overnight. We’re gonna have boiled eggs with our ramen, so they might as well be marinated! Here’s how I do my boiled eggs: start in cold water, set high heat, and as soon as the water hits a hard boil, turn off the heat and leave it alone for 8 minutes.. After the 8 minutes are up, immediately rinse out the pot with cold water to stop the cooking. This gives you that perfect, slightly translucent yolk – not runny, and not dry and crumbly either.

As for the ramen broth, I’ll be brief. I basically used Nate’s quick ramen broth recipe. I added just a couple more ingredients that ramen aficionado chef David Chang uses in his Momofuku ramen broth: scallions, dried shiitakes, and bacon for smokiness. It’s not that I don’t trust Nate’s recipe, it’s just that I look at those three ingredients and think to myself, “Well, they can only add good flavor, right?” After tasting the finished broth, I felt like I went slightly overboard with the shiitakes and didn’t use enough bacon, but we’ll see how it tastes when the whole dish comes together tomorrow.

NEXT DAY, moment of truth:

Since the chashu came untied during the cooking process, I wasn’t able to cut those nice, large, sexy rounds from The Food Lab’s post. So I just cut them cross-wise, as thin as I could, against  the grain of the meat. I know the whole point of this post was all about the pork belly, but I actually forgot to take pictures of the cold sliced pork belly. Sorry! Cold pork belly doesn’t look that sexy anyway. I just sliced them thin, put them on top of the noodles, poured hot broth over them, and let them heat up that way.

The final ramen bowls:

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The nori started wilting as soon as I put it in the bowl! Damn!

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I had a friend who helped me taste; she loves corn in her ramen, and I hate it. (as it turns out, she also hates bamboo in her ramen, as we’ll see in the next pic)

After we had finished the entirety of our initial bowls, my friend was still hungry and demanded another full bowl; this time without the bamboo, but with shaved scallions, which I had fully intended to include in all of our ramen, but had totally forgotten. So, one last bowl (minus bamboo :sadface:).

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Final thoughts

Broth:
Additions I made to Nate’s recipe:

  • Shiitakes: while they added some good flavor, I definitely went overboard. I added a handful. Next time, maybe half a handful instead.
  • Bacon: the opposite. I added one chopped up strip of Applewood smoked bacon, and I couldn’t really taste any smokiness. I’m sure it added to the nice, rich fattiness of the broth, though. Next time, I’ll try 3 strips.
  • Scallions: I added about 6 scallions, trimmed. Don’t know if they made any difference. Maybe I’ll try more next time.

It was delicious, if a little strong in the shiitake flavor, as I’ve already mentioned. My friend didn’t notice the shiitake flavor at all, though, so maybe it’s just me. Despite this being a quick shortcut recipe, it tasted like real ramen broth!

Pork belly:
The pork belly was absolutely melt-in-your mouth delicious. I had previously expressed concern about the liquid level for the braise, but it didn’t end up being a problem, especially since I took advantage of the leftover liquid by marinating boiled eggs in it (they turned out delicious, btw – I put in a few extra eggs so I could enjoy them for breakfast the morning after, and they were great). The only thing I’d change next time is to just not bother with the tying, and to up the shoyu level by just a tad (1-2 tbsp); the final pork belly, while super tasty and unctuous, could have used just a TAD more saltiness. Was it as good as the chashu we had in Japan? It’s been so long that I honestly don’t remember, but I think it was damned close. I definitely plan on working on this recipe some more in the future. But all in all, I’m deeming this initial effort a success!

Soundtrack for the cook: Skid Row, Poison, Megadeth, Warrant, Slaughter, Motley Crue, Firehouse. It was shamelessly 80’s, and it was awesome.

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